Whichever way you look, it's impossible to avoid the air of strangely familiar menace.
Shadows are sharp, corners dark and gloomy. Shower curtain hooks hang from a rail – the shower is running but the curtain itself is nowhere to be seen. An ashtray and newspaper lie on a small table; the bed alongside is rumpled and empty. Outside is a large post-war American sedan. It’s as if a disembodied Marion Crane is revisiting the scene of her murder.
In a sense she is, via six discombobulating minutes of virtual reality (VR) based on one of cinema’s most famous motels. Deep breaths are needed when I put down the VR headset.
Only at the air, only at each other is an experimental virtual-reality exploration of the Bates Motel from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho. It is a finalist in the Best Experimental category at the 2017 ATOM awards for film, television and new media, and had its world premiere at the Sydney Film Festival Hub earlier this year.
Director and producer Dr Gregory Ferris, from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney, says the work is an examination of in-between spaces – in this case motels, being the spaces between starting points and destinations, and the space between life and death. It is also the first in Ferris’s trilogy of VR films titled Purgatorio.
Ferris’s foray into the world of virtual reality has landed him in a “weird in-between space – much like Marion Crane – between cinema and fine arts”.
“My background is in visual arts – painting and photography – but more and more I’ve been moving towards the moving image, working with interactivity and computers,” he says.
“With VR, I think we’re still in the early days and the next year will be really important in terms of appetite and content, especially content. It is king with VR and we need some killer content.”
Ferris is certainly devoting a lot of time and energy to the medium. He is one of seven artists to receive the first grants from Create NSW for work in the field of Virtual Reality (VR). His project, Sympathetic Threads, will include an immersive 12-minute short of live action, animation and VR graphics which he hopes will be ready for submission to the 2018 Sydney Film Festival. The story follows four characters as they interact over a couple of hours late one afternoon and into the evening and is partly inspired by the American filmmaker Robert Altman.
Ferris is also preparing for the 2018 academic year when third-year undergraduate students will study a virtual reality module for the first time.
“The skills and technologies and ways of working that I used with the Bates Motel and Marion Crane – and will use on my Sympathetic Threads project – will be folded into that. That fits in with the whole idea of creative practice being a strong element within our faculty, in both research and teaching.”
He says all the VR works he has been developing are related to research undertaken for his PhD, completed in 2013.
“Where creativity meets technology – if that’s what we’re aiming for, then we're right there.”
Ferris is nearing fine-cut stage on the editing of another VR trailblazing work, Storm Rider. It documents contemporary artist’s Shaun Gladwell efforts to teach a young British Muslim woman how to ride a skateboard and is the first VR documentary to receive funding from Screen Australia. It is produced by SBS and the VR collective Badfaith, of which Gladwell and UTS alumnus Dr Jordan Nguyen are members.
He recently gained representation by Kronenberg Wright Artist Projects and a group show in early 2018 will include a new Ferris VR work. A solo exhibition in late May will expand on his Psycho project, including a room-scale VR version of the motel space.
The 2017 ATOM prize winners will be announced at an awards dinner on November 30.